Alasdair Hutton OBE TD

Unveiling of Will H. Ogilvie Memorial, Holefield, Kelso

1900 Friday 19 July 2019

It is a very special honour for me to be able to say something about Will Ogilvie, having been at school and worked in Queensland as well as biding in Kelso for the last 36 years.

I have always loved the words which Will Ogilvie crafted whether they were about his beloved Borders, the place of his birth and most of his life, or the years he spent in the bush in Australia. Wherever he wrote he seemed to catch the mood of the place he was in.

In his words you can hear the creak of well-used leather and the jingle of harnesses as he pictures riders heading out by moonlight over the Border hills or rounding up sheep in the outback. You can smell the dust and feel the heat of the Australian sun as he brings to life “the men of the wide open spaces”.

Will Ogilvie started here at Holefield and early on showed he was a sportsman. Growing up here where the horizons start to widen out towards the east, it was not entirely surprising that with his adventurous spirit, and his father’s encouragement, he should have been drawn away to the even wider horizons of the Australian outback on the far side of the world where his natural Border proficiency on a horse gained him work on a variety of sheep stations.

Those were the days when the only way to travel that far was by sea. By a happy coincidence I travelled that same route 65 years later, by the same shipping line but not the same ship, so I have an inkling of the excitement he must have felt as the miles slipped away behind him towards an unknown future.

What was most unusual for an adventurous young sportsman was the skill he took with him as a poet and over the eleven years he spent on sheep stations in New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland, he built a reputation as one of the country’s finest bush poets.

In Australia their names are legendary, Andrew Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and Will H. Ogilvie. All three were bush balladeers who were central to the upsurge of Australian literature in the eighteen nineties and which has remained the most popular of Australian verse.

Ironically Will Ogilvie was the only one of three who truly lived in and understood at first hand from his life as a roustabout, horse breaker and overseer on big sheep stations the life of the men who made their living in the bush.

Both Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were born in Australia and both lived in Sydney. Paterson wrote excellent poems including The Man From Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow as well as Waltzing Matilda, all of which bolstered the romantic view of the tough, independent bushman which Australians wanted to read.

Lawson wrote short stories and poems and worked for only a short time as a roustabout on a sheep station paid for by a newspaper.

Unlike the others, throughout the eighteen nineties Will Ogilvie was constantly in the saddle moving from north west New South Wales to south east South Australia, then back to four different sheep stations in New South Wales and finally in 1900 to Hungerford in south west Queensland.

Wherever he went, he wrote. Usually he scribbled his verses on scraps of paper as he rode. Initially it was for newspapers using such pen-names as Glenrowan, Free Lance, Swingle-Bar and Fourth Mate as well as his initials WHO before he began to be published in book form by the firm of Angus and Robertson in Sydney with his first volume appearing in 1898.

In his eleven years on the continent he experienced the three year long Australian shearers’ strike of 1891, the Australian banking crisis of 1893 when some bank notes became worthless and the Federation drought which lasted from 1896 to 1902 and may well have been the event which triggered his decision to leave as properties were forced to destock.

So in 1901 at the age of 31 Will Ogilvie returned to Scotland. Back at home, he became a freelance journalist in Edinburgh which must have seemed terribly tame after the outback. The wanderlust had obviously not quite left him and he spent another three years as the Professor of Agricultural Journalism at Iowa State College in America which must have been the final cure for he returned to Scotland in 1908 and settled back in the Borders where he married and raised two children.

Now he concentrated on his writing and the following year he published his epic poem Whaup o’ the Rede, a Border ballad very much in the manner of Sir Walter Scott. I am lucky enough to have one of the original 500 copies from 1909 with Tom Scott’s illustrations and Ogilvie’s preface gives a clue to why he came home first from Australia and then finally from America. He wrote –

“The following is a simple and rugged song in simple words dealing with the strenuous times of our forbears and founded on a well-known incident in raiding warfare. It is written down from the fulness of a heart that loves every leaf and grass blade on the Borders and it is written for those understanding people whose heritage is the memory and legend that wraps romance around the Marches. If it brings to them anything of the freshness of those glorious hills among which its scenes are laid, anything of the spirit of those stirring days in which our forefathers fought and rode, anything of the lights and shadows that roll unceasingly across the slopes of Cheviot and down the Ettrick valley it has not been written in vain.”

That says clearly to me that no matter how far he had travelled and no matter how exciting his life had been, he was a Borderer at heart and that love of his Borderland had never left him. After wandering half across the globe from the old world to the new, that unbreakable thread had drawn him back to the land he loved.

Will Ogilvie valued the rhythm of words. Read any of his verses and you can hear their lyrical quality. They are much more than merely words elegantly strung together. He had that rare talent which inspired him to use the words which you and I use every day but to use them in a way which could so accurately catch a mood or sense an atmosphere or describe a place and the character of the people in it.

There are at least 25 books carrying around 1000 of his poems and prose. I am proud to have virtually all of them to enjoy at my leisure.

One thing Will Ogilvie did not like was modern poetry. In a letter to his Australian publishers, Angus and Robertson, with his last book “From Sunset To Dawn”, written from the old manse at Ashkirk, “Kirklea”, in 1945, he dismissed it declaring it had “little sense in it and no music and is too often just rather indifferent prose cut into short lines.”

Although he was in Australia for only eleven of his 93 years, the country took Will Ogilvie to its heart as one of its own, best bush poets and it never forgot him. Cairns were erected to him in New South Wales and in South Australia and two verses from his poem “The Men of the Open Spaces” are inscribed on a giant rock at the entrance to the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame opened by Her Majesty the Queen at Longreach in the back blocks of central west Queensland in 1988.

These were men, he wrote,

Who ride with a gallant bearing

where every saddle’s a throne,

and each is an emperor sharing

an empire enough for his own.

They are strangers to airs and graces,

and scornful of power and pride –

the Men of the Open Spaces,

who rule the world when they ride.

In those words Will Ogilvie could easily have been writing about the men of the Borderland when they rode out by moonlight in those far off days.

Here in the Borders we remember Will H. Ogilvie on the Hill Road to Roberton, where his ashes were scattered along with Australian wattle leaves, and now, with this fine monument at the place where he first saw the light of a border day 150 years ago.

This stone marks the birthplace of a great Border writer, a poet with an international reach, whose words have stirred and comforted generations and will go on doing so for many generations to come – Will H. Ogilvie.